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11 Tips for Maximizing Player Expression
by Daniel Cook on 05/05/13 05:07:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


As game developers, we talk quite a bit about how we can build games that allow an author to express themselves more clearly.  What about the flip side of the game equation?  How can we build games that allow the player to express themselves in a rich and meaningful fashion?

I find player expression within games fascinating for a couple reasons.

  • It empowers players to add to the world instead of acting only as consumers.
  • It multiplies the designer's efforts times the efforts of the player community. 
  • It seems to be a strong attribute of games that is less directly supported by other forms of media like novels or movies. 

Here are several types of player expression I look for in a system.  These all exist on a spectrum and each is a design tool, not a prescription for how things must be done in all situations. You can treat these as potential lens and ask yourself "Can I use this specific factor to improve player expression in my design?"

1. Player generated solutions
Can the player come up with unique feeling solutions to a problem?

Lots: An example of such a system would be Tetris in which there are a massive number of ways to complete a line. 

Little: The opposite of such a system is a simple puzzle like a riddle in which there is only one solution and one path to that solution.  Even a well regarded title like Myst has little in the way player generated solutions. 

2. Player tool choice
Does the player have a choice of a variety of unique, yet equally valid tools?

Lots: In the Sims, the player can satisfy the game's goals using a huge variety of objects, most of which are roughly equivalent. 

Little: Quick time event where the tools required to solve the problem are pre-selected and there is little to no possible variation allowed by the design. You can press the button as prescribed or not press the button. 

3. Play styles that support player identity
Does the game support a variety of unique play styles so that a player can express who they are through how they do something?

Lots: In Chess, players can be aggressive, casual, defensive or sneaky all through their actions. Each player has a stylistic flavor that says something about them as a person (and their relationship with the other player).  As the expressive richness of verbs increases, play turns into performance. 
Little: In a linear game like Dragon's Lair, different playthroughs by different players are nearly indistinguishable.  There is little room for player identity. 

4. Evoking player identity
Can the player express their identity within the thematic constraints of the game's content?

Lots: In a game like Second Life, if you really want to be a Marie Antoinette look alike sporting a halo, you can be.  Gender, race, culture, sex, age, affiliation, hair color, skin color, fashion, role are all areas that players associate with their identity.  These need not be realistic since one common class of play involves pushing of boundaries in order to try out various identities and see how they fit. 

Little: In the game God of War, you can be Kratos.  That's pretty much all you can be. 

5. Player set intermediate goals
Though there may be an overarcing goal to the game, is it common for players to set their own intermediate goals

Lots: In a game like Civilization, you know you want to beat the game.  The path to victory involves the selection of research projects, buildings, army deployments and other short to medium goals that are all optional.  The goals that the game provides may also be remixed into player specific strategic objectives 

Little: In the early stages of Final Fantasy XIII, the player goes from encounter to encounter.  There is little goal setting (apart from character advancement) 

6. Build social relationships
Does the game allow enough communication, persistence of identity and shared space to build meaningful social relationships? Do the tools (implicit and explicit) exist to negotiate issues of trust, status and group membership via the game?

Lots: An MMO like Everquest has persistent characters and plenty of opportunity to both chat, compete and perform together. 

Little: Standard Bejeweled is often played along as a means of relaxing.  For most, there is very little interaction with other players.  Note that it only takes relatively minor changes to switch context so that you have a mode like Bejeweled Blitz which ends up being far more social as you compete with and against other players. 

7. Shared goals
Does the game allow groups of individuals to work together towards a common goal? 

Lots: In World of Warcraft, a guild of players works together to beat a big boss.  This requires communication and coordination at a rather intense level.  There exist strong dependencies between players that encourage creative social arrangements. 

Little:  An equally multiplayer game like Doom death match can often feel like there are no shared goals.  Players are focused almost entirely on their own interests.  The introduction of clans changes the equation dramatically. 

8. Crafting of share-able artifacts that represent things external to the game
Can you build something in the game that evokes the real world?

Lots: In the Sims, you can setup relationships that mimic actual families.  You then can either share the file or capture a storybook of the interactions.  This ends tying the game into out of game communities and magnifying the social impact of player expression.  Think of games as a method of generating experiences and stories as a means of sharing those experiences. 

Little: In a text adventure like Zork, there was very little to share.  During the era it was released, you couldn't capture the screen easily, nor could you share it with others.  You couldn't creating anything.  At best you could verbally tells someone about something that existed entirely inside the game.  The fact that people did this at all demonstrates how strong the urge is to share. 

9. Persistence of player history 
Can the player(s) build up a long term history of past actions?  Can they invest in their own unique history?

Lots: A season of soccer is a soap opera months in the making.  The team's standing reflects a complex aggregation of personal training, injuries, luck and performance. Stats are collected, tales written and shared, videos recorded.   The end result is a dense historical narrative that will be mined for years. 

Little: A brief game of Dys4ia creates no history. It does however mix the theme into the player's mental models of the world. This process is the essential heart of conveying an authored narrative to an audience but still it does not directly generate an expressive player history.  What you can hope for in this situation is that a meta-game played beyond the constraints of the work itself yields ripples of reactions.  (Arguably, the meta-game is what contains the expressive ruleset and the static work becomes a move by a player.)

10. Sharing of performances with a broader audience
Once players have created a unique, personal performance, can they share it with others?

Lots: The avid audience and broadcasting networks associated with a game like Starcraft greatly facilitate the sharing of great play. 

Little: Many German boardgames such as Puerto Rico are impenetrable to outside viewers.  Also since they are played in private spaces with few recording opportunities or explanation of the game's dynamics, spectating is quite rare.  The result is a game with relatively weak virality that is difficult to explain. "You really just need to play it.  A couple times" becomes the fallback.  This sadly limits the world's appreciation of elite board game players and perhaps even hurts their dating chances. 

11. Modding
Can players modify the rules and game data to reflect personal or group desires?  Can players take ownership of the design?

Lots: Though modding digital games like Quake, Half-Life or Skyrim are perhaps the most cited examples, consider modding in the broad sense as seen in a playground game of tag.  Players will on the fly create new constraints such as safe zones or alternate goals. Unofficial rules, house rules and cheating become a form of modding.  Also consider traditional roleplaying games or story games where the player craft the narrative of the game.  When combined with persistent player history, you end up with amazing world building opportunities. 

Little: A locked down, heavily scripted console title like Limbo offers nearly zero modding capabilities.  

A broad opportunity
There are some common themes here. You need not hit all of them in order to build a game that enables player expression: 

  • Deep systems with rich player choice
  • Multiplayer / Social play within a community. 
  • Sharing of individual play experiences. 

Together, these cover a universe of interesting games.  There are a few existing genres that tap into several of these techniques.  Simulation games, Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress inspired building games, Expressive PvP games and MMOs all share expressive elements.  Overall, it feels like a space poorly explored. For every Minecraft, there are a dozen consumable single player titles that generate value through a linear mix of puzzle and narrative.  

What delightful new games could we make if we focused our minds and hearts on maximizing player expression?

take care, 

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Ryan Watterson
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I love many games like this. Civ is one of my favorites, I love the opportunity to get in the heads of world leaders and see what kind of world leader I'd be. And I think these tips are great.

It really depends what kind of game you're trying to make. You can express yourself in a sim, or on a canvas, or in microsoft word, or in unity, or by making a sim, or by making a game that is not a sim. All great things to do. Ultimately the sim is a kind of sophisticated authored communication anyway, it's some person or team of persons saying something like in for instance, sim city, 'This is the experience of what being a city manager is like (or at least in this world/with these abstractions). Don't you understand it better now?'

edit: one thing about sims I think about is how much technology is worth sacrificing for topic. It's just by luck that people like sid meier and will wright had niche interests that were valuable to create experience sims. The people with experiences most worth communicating are not empowered to simulate them for others. That's why cart life worked so well. But engineers/game studios picking and choosing who to give voice to via sims is really just a form of patronage. Giving fish vs teaching fishing (though better than nothing obviously)

Jeremy Alessi
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So true!

Silvio Carrera
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Very interesting read :) Some good points to keep in mind!

Bart Stewart
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Complete agreement on deep systems allowing and encouraging player expression (and that such expression is generally a Good Thing to support).

It's why I advocate for more attention to dynamic/simulationist design. When the world itself can give you feedback (in multiple modes) about your choices, that world gets more interesting as a game element.

The opposite is also true. As Eric Schwarz pointed out here recently, the "multiple solutions to challenges" design of System Shock and Deus Ex has regressed in the BioShock games to "kill everything and watch cutscenes." I think that's arguably less interesting, and specifically because it's a design choice to reduce opportunities for player expressiveness.

I do wonder about social interaction as player expression, though. Does a thought only count if it's seen by other people? Are introverts, who are energized by opportunities to concentrate, less expressive than extroverts?

I don't disagree that there's game design value in features that let players share information and create emergent effects through interaction. But when it comes to people who prefer single-player games because they're less interested in making their self-expression public, I admit I feel a bit funny about the implication that designers can never maximize expressive opportunities for these gamers.

I'd say, "introverts unite!" but, you know. ;)

Gaute Rasmussen
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I've been looking into a sub-section of this line of thinking for the last couple of years.

It seems to me that player expression is something that's increased over the years. Earlier games hardly allowed it at all, while newer games such as Little Big Planet revel in it. But there's still an interesting trend where the expression is something that gets added onto the game, rather than integrated with it. Take LBP, for example. You can either muck around and be creative, or you can try to play the game. Doing the former doesn't aid in the latter. The same is true for some of the games you've mentioned here. The way I choose to play in Civilization might be an expression of what I'm like as a person, but does it help me win the game? Probably not. To do that I need to just work the numbers and calculate the best possible way to proceed. That's not very expressive.

Basically there's a tension between "my desire for self expression" and "the best way to win the game". That's annoying. And you can see that reflected in how games are made too. Games that have very clear objectives (Call of Duty, Bioshock) don't have that much room for self expression. And games that have lots of room for self expression (Minecraft, Sim City) don't have much in the way of objectives.

So what I started pondering on is games where expression is actually the objective. Essentially: Games where you make "art" (or whatever term you're comfortable with) and the game gives you a score based on it. That way the player's expression isn't secondary to the main gameplay mechanics anymore, but rather is the core focus of the game.

I've got a small suite of games exploring the notion here:

It's sort of taking the "multiple solutions" way of thinking from Deus Ex one step further. In Deus Ex there are multiple ways of doing things. But they are all ways that were created by the designer. Shouldn't these multiple solutions be instigated by the player? So let's say the player creates something - or does something. Anything, within the bounds of what's possible within the reality of that game. And then the game has to react to that and try to figure out what it's worth - whether it's good enough to pass that challenge - whether that would work in terms of bypassing that locked door - etc.

That's the way things work in pen & paper role playing games, for example. So why can't we do that in games?

I have no idea if that's the next step in game design or if it's just an interesting thought experiment. But it IS an interesting thought experiment...